Where Does the iPad Go From Here?

November 4th, 2013

When Apple released the iPad Mini a year ago, I wrote that the Mini wasn’t just a secondary option to the main iPad, but it is the iPad. What I meant is that the Mini fulfilled much of the original iPad’s vision better than it or any of its full-sized successors did. Because the Mini was so much lighter and so much easier to hold, the Mini was not only more enjoyable to use while sitting down on the couch or in bed, but opened up contexts that the full-sized iPad’s size and weight didn’t allow. The iPad’s promise was powerful computing available to you in something you could comfortably hold in your hands, and the Mini fully delivered on it.

With this year’s full-sized iPad, though, the line between the two devices blurred. It’s still discernible, but it’s murkier. The iPad Mini is still superior for reading since it’s lighter, but the difference has narrowed considerably. Forget how many grams each device is; the iPad Air is quite comfortable to hold one-handed. Not as nice as the Mini, but nice.

The Mini narrowed the performance and capability gap as well. The Mini now runs the ridiculously fast A7 processor, same as the iPad Air and iPhone 5S. For many people, the Mini is big enough to write on as well, or make presentations in Keynote. The full-sized iPad is still superior for those tasks, and is especially superior for tasks like sketching which benefit from a larger screen, but the difference really isn’t that large. They are both quite capable devices for whatever task people want to use them for. The comparison is much more akin to a 13-inch Macbook versus a 15-inch than it is to an iPhone versus an iPad.

Which begs the question: where is the iPad going? More specifically, where are iPad applications going?

The original iPad was released in 2010 with the full iWork suite, and along with the iPad 2 in 2011, Apple released Garageband and iMovie as well. Garageband in particular feels like the high water mark for creative applications on the iPad. Not only was Garageband incredibly powerful and feature-deep, but it felt like it was made for the iPad all along.

There are many other applications that are powerful in different ways as well. Paper is a wonderfully simple application, but is capable of remarkably beautiful and intricate work (Paper’s Tumblr makes that clear). Editorial is a well-constructed text editor that is, in some ways, superior to desktop-based text editors. Djay is, appropriately, a DJ application that could only exist on the iPad. And on and on.

I think, though, that we’re beginning to see diminishing returns for increasing the capabilities of existing iPad applications or pushing it into new spaces. Generally speaking, while iPad hardware is dramatically faster and more capable than it was in 2010 (or even last year), applications haven’t increased at anywhere near the same pace. There are a number of obvious reasons for that, of course; faster hardware doesn’t necessarily imply that software—which is dependent on many things, but is especially dependent on good ideas and demand for them—will advance at a similar pace.

But there’s another reason: iOS still hews closely to the one-app-at-a-time, app-as-silo concept that began with the iPhone in 2007. For some purposes, this actually makes the iPad a better tool than the PC; the iPad’s limited ability to multitask makes it easier to focus on writing or other focused tasks like sketching. But it also significantly constrains what’s possible on the device. Writing an email or article that references a website or note, or doing any work that requires looking at one application’s content while working in another, requires flipping back and forth between applications, which makes for an excellent test of patience. And there is virtually no support for allowing two applications to work together on a single task by passing data between them.

Many people have suggested that renaming the iPad the “iPad Air” sets the stage for an iPad Pro, presumably with a larger screen. It’s difficult to disagree with that, but I don’t think an iPad with merely a larger screen would justify a “pro” moniker. The difference between what it is capable of and what the iPad Air is capable of would be fairly small; it would be better at sketching, but not much else. But where it would make sense is if the one-app-at-a-time model is relaxed. Using two applications on screen at once, a la Microsoft’s Metro, would certainly benefit from a larger screen. And building support for allowing applications to work together on tasks and share their data would justify the new name that much more as well.

While conceptually these two changes are fairly simple (I wrote about what applications working together could look like last year), the details are always where it gets difficult. How do you enter “split-screen” mode? How do you get out? What affordances do you provide to users so they understand what’s going on? Do you allow the user to drag content back and forth between applications (I’d hope so!)? How do you indicate what can and can’t be dragged? How do you implement the API to do so? And so on. None of it is easy. It’s inherently complex, and while we all want iOS to become more powerful, these changes are fundamental to iOS’s conceptual design, and a wrong move could endanger what’s made iOS so convincing in the first place: its simplicity.

Nonetheless, if iOS and the iPad are going to continue to progress and become more capable, then these sorts of changes are inevitable. That’s (generally) where we’re going. The rest is details. It’s also, coincidentally, where most of the work is.